Donald Glover’s character Earn in the first episode of his new FX show “Atlanta” is having a bad day. He’s broke, needs to get some rent money pronto and can’t even skim a dime off his parents.
“It’s like in one of those drug commercials – just not funny,” Earn muses to a DJ friend.
But the show itself has funny moments – in a low-key, indie film sort of way. It’s quirky and singular of vision, like Louis C.K.’s “Louie.”
And not all is lost for Earn. He becomes manager to a cousin Paper Boi, who has a buzz-worthy hit rap song.
“I just wanted to make something I wasn’t seeing,” said 32-year-old Glover, a former star of NBC’s “Community” who grew up in Stone Mountain. “And something really mythical I felt that wasn’t anywhere on television. And I felt Atlanta was a perfect place to do it.”
Mythical is a word more typically tied to a show like “Game of Thrones.” ” ‘Game of Thrones’ is no different,” he said. “Rap people treat Atlanta like a mythical place.”
Indeed, he and FX agreed to just make the show title “Atlanta.” It debuts Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. (Adding to the authenticity, Cynne Simpson of Fox 5 makes a cameo appearance doing a mock TV report in the first episode.)
“I didn’t really name it,” Glover said. “It was originally untitled. In forums and comments, people just began calling it ‘Atlanta.’ Sometimes the Internet does things better than one person. Sometimes it does the opposite. In this case, it was applicable.”
His character spouts off philosophical thoughts, sometimes to spiritual beings that may or may not exist. On a bus in the debut, he starts talking out loud to a dapper stranger.
“I just keep losing,” Earn says. “Some people are just supposed to lose for balance in the universe? Are there some people on earth who are supposed to make it easier for the winners? Like really?”
Glover, who used writers mostly from Atlanta and penned much of it himself with his brother Stephen, said he wanted to make his show “a place for thinking. Critical thinking is kind of not cool right now. I kind of based it on different forms of thought.”
He readily admits the show is “a little bit weird. It’s more about perspective than anything and how people feel. I really believe more in tone and feeling.”
Glover wasn’t keen on giving away much of the plot lines for the season, preferring to leave an air of mystery. “It takes away from the art,” he said. “Right now it’s hard to tell art from advertising. I try my hardest not give people a lens on things. It’s better to hand them a lens and have them figure it out. ‘Oh sushi! It’s like… fish!’ People can make their own decisions.”
He hadn’t lived here in awhile so before he began writing, he spent two weeks here with family and friends to absorb current-day Atlanta. In his view, “as much as things change, they stay the same. It wasn’t hard to do research.”
Glover worked with a lot of newbies to TV, including his director music video veteran Hiro Murai. “It was a really great experience. It was very refreshing. I was very happy to get up and go to work.”
He cast Morehouse College graduate Brian Tyree Henry and Keith Stanfield as his buddies for the show because he saw them as “honest actors. Super honest. We’re all different. We became brothers on set.”
The show has received rave reviews from critics. On Metacritic as of Thursday, September 1, the average score is a whopping 89 out of 100, based on six reviews. Since June, only two other television programs have beaten that number: HBO’s ‘The Night Of” and ESPN’s documentary “OJ: Made in America.” Critics have given it higher marks than the latest seasons of USA’s “Mr. Robot,” Lifetime’s “Unreal” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”
David Wiegand of The San Francisco Chronicle: “The scripts for the four episodes made available to critics are as richly nuanced as anything you’ll see on TV or, to be sure, in a movie theater. You will not only know these characters after only one episode, you’ll be hooked on them, as well. In so many areas, Atlanta sets the bar exceptionally high.”
Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix: There’s a bit of DNA in common with the many other quasi-mumblecore half-hours, but stylistically and tonally, “Atlanta” is its own absorbing, and at times surprisingly funny, thing.”
Vikram Murthi of A.V. Club: “Glover and his team don’t get lost in the drama of the series’ reality. Instead, they present it unflinchingly and let comedy define the tone. In the process, they bring a fresh perspective on topics enervating in the culture at large.”
Glover is clearly not gunning for a “Big Bang Theory”-type audience nor is he expecting one. His goals are modest: “Success is a show that stays on the air. I have very high standards. My taste level is pretty high. Not a lot of art and media I consider really good. Something funny and smart. That’s hard to do.”
In his mind, NBC’s “Community” in which he played nerdy, goofy Troy, was a “huge success” for surviving five seasons on NBC and a sixth on Yahoo. (He left after season five.) “It wasn’t ‘Friends,’ ” he said. “But I made a lot of life-long friends and worked some incredibly creative people.”
And in his very Glover-like way, he kept on going: “We’re ants. We’re just ants. There are certain things I’m not going to be able to understand. I’m just going to amplify whatever vibrations are going through me. I don’t know how long the show will last. It’s just going to for as long as it goes.”
He doesn’t shy away from the fact “Atlanta” is focused on being black in the city. “I don’t consider it a black show but I know a lot of people will. It’s important to me to show a metropolitan perspective.”
During a scene shot for the season one finale in early May, the trio of friends get pulled over mistakenly by cops in an Atlanta neighborhood not far from Midtown.
Ironically, on his way to set, Henry got pulled over by an Atlanta cop for no obvious reason. Henry didn’t take it with bitterness, just a fact of life. “I knew how to handle it,” he said in an interview soon after it happened. “I took care of it. This is our world. These things happen.” He was thinking, “I’m late and I’d really like to go play with my friends! I just want to go to work!”
As for Earn’s day in the pilot, which I described earlier in this article as seemingly “bad.” Glover doesn’t characterize it that way.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I sort of feel like he just might be black. Just another day. Just a day.”
“Atlanta,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, starting September 6 on FX
By RODNEY HO/ email@example.com, originally filed Thursday, September 1, 2016